When the cameras lined up for hat selections on National Signing Day 2012, it was mostly big players who settled in front of the lens. Florida's D.J. Humphries was considered one of the top offensive line prospects in years, and prominent defensive linemen Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman, Darius Hamilton and Ondre Pipkins were all tabbed as five-star talents, according to Rivals.com.
There are prominent linemen again this year, but the class of 2013 is headlined by a crop of speedy, physical and overwhelmingly talented defensive backs. With 20 defensive backs ranked among the top 100 prospects, it only makes sense that several of these promising young recruits will challenge for playing time from the moment they arrive on campus. Here are five to keep an eye on.
1. Marcell Harris
The Gators are already well-stocked at cornerback, and they're on track to add the top-ranked corner in the 2013 cycle in Tampa's Vernon Hargreaves III. Yet Florida has more red flags at safety, which may create an opening for Harris, a menacing safety who could establish himself as a punisher early in his career. Harris checks in at 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, and he showcased his coverage skills and hitting ability during both the camp circuit and the 2012 season.
While making a good first impression in Gainesville could help Harris climb up the depth chart, he needs to make sure he is completely healthy. Harris missed four games his senior year after going down with a knee injury in a late October win over nearby Evans High.
Most pundits consider Harris college-ready, and he seems a sure bet to compete with safety Keanu Neal -- the No. 64 overall recruit in Rivals' rankings -- for a chance at early action in 2013.
2. Su'a Cravens
Coming off an underwhelming 2012 campaign, the Trojans are in need of a serious makeover. Cravens is the type of player who could help accelerate a turnaround. Lauded by coaches and pundits as a playmaker with an unusually high football IQ, the Vista Murrieta standout could feasibly start at safety for USC when it visits Hawaii on Aug. 29.
The Trojans lose both starting safeties, T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling, as well as ace cornerback Nickell Robey. Competition for starting spots should be wide open. Cravens, the
High school stats won't mean much once Cravens steps into Heritage Hall, but for now, they're certainly worth admiring. He recorded 97 tackles, eight sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and three blocked punts as a senior. Cravens and fellow early enrollee Leon McQuay III of Seffner, Fla., are two high-profile players who could ensure a more successful 2013 effort in Los Angeles.
3. Kendall Fuller
Fuller has long been considered one of the top prospects in the class of 2013 and should contend for a starting spot at Virginia Tech immediately. For one, Fuller's 6-foot, 185-pound frame is already in college shape. In addition, pundits have repeatedly complimented his body control and physicality. Frequently targeted at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Fuller lived up to his billing, and he made a one-handed interception in practice that was considered one of the highlights of the week.
The Hokies are pretty well-stocked at cornerback (Kendall's brother, Kyle, is one of the starting corners), but the younger Fuller may be too talented to keep off of the field. Rivals.com recently compared Fuller with Morris Claiborne of the Dallas Cowboys -- an athletic presence with excellent instincts and sneaky speed to boot.
4. Johnny Johnson; Priest Willis
By signing Cravens and McQuay and securing a verbal commitment from five-star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, USC initially appeared to lock in far-and-away the top secondary haul in the nation. Yet while the Trojans' class still boasts more five-star players, UCLA has put together an impressive crop of its own by landing four four-star pledges in the span of just over a week.
Good friends Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis joined Tyler Foreman of Crespi, Encino, Calif., and Johnny Johnson to create a top-flight defensive class. Even scarier, all four may have a shot at starting by the time August rolls around. The Bruins lose two senior starters at cornerback (Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price) and one at safety (Andrew Abbott). UCLA has had talented clusters of athletes arrive in the past, but coach Jim Mora appears to have spaced out his depth chart to allow for some open competition during the summer.
Johnson is a bit less polished than Willis and Goodman, but he is a natural cornerback, while Goodman and Willis project as safeties at the next level. Given the circumstances, don't be surprised if both Johnson and Willis see the field more often than not as true freshmen.
5. Max Redfield
Redfield was not supposed to wind up anywhere near Notre Dame, but he verbally committed to the Irish on Jan. 4. A USC pledge for the majority of his recruitment, Redfield eventually distanced himself from the Trojans and later was not allowed to visit Oregon despite his expressed interest. If he ends up signing with coach Brian Kelly, none of that previous drama should matter.
The Irish lose starting safety Zeke Motta, and his backup, freshman Nicky Baratti, was used primarily on special teams last year. Redfield should have an opportunity to step in early. The Mission Viejo product has been praised for his excellent coverage skills and range; he can lay a big hit if necessary, but his talents are strongest in pass coverage.